Federer's ability keeps increasing


PARIS -- It's beginning to look like Roger Federer might be the next player who can rival some of the statistics and ability to perform under pressure that Pete Sampras' showed.

Federer has won two of the past three past Grand Slams and comes into the French Open as the hands down favorite. He's already shown that he can play on every surface, and he's realistically the only player on tour right now who has the ability to win every Grand Slam event -- other than Andre Agassi, who has already accomplished that feat. It's not unrealistic to think that Federer could be the first player since Rod Laver in 1969 to win all four majors in one calendar year.

Federer is coming into this year's French Open after losing in the first round in his two previous appearances at Roland Garros. However, he won the Tennis Masters Series in Hamburg by beating Guillermo Coria in the final as Coria was looking to win his 32-consecutive match on clay.

The fact that defending champion Juan Carlo Ferrero is coming in substantially less than 100 percent, if he plays at all, takes one of Federer's biggest rivals for the title out of the picture. If Federer continues to play with the level of confidence that he's been playing with, there's no one in the draw who is going to beat him.

Ferrero won the title here last year, I immediately picked him to win the French Open 2004. When Ferrero is healthy, he is every bit as good on red clay as Federer is on grass. But Ferrero comes into this championship with an injured wrist and ribs due to a fall after recently fighting off a bout of chicken pox. He's nowhere near as match-ready as last year. He has yet to win a title this year, compared to last season when he had won the Tennis Masters Series in Monte Carlo and Valencia leading into Roland Garros. It's virtually impossible to expect a player to perform well or win a Grand Slam with so little preparation. Combine that with his injuries, and it's hard to see a way for him to defend his title this year.

One player who does have the potential to challenge for the title is Marat Safin. That's a big IF. Safin must come in to this event with a stable frame of mind and get back to the tennis he was playing in Australia. If he does that, there's no reason why he can't reach the quarterfinal and have a matchup with Federer. That would be a fabulous match.

Before his stunning straight-set loss Monday to qualifier Jerome Haehnel, Andre Agassi was in a very similar position as Ferrero. Although he wasn't battling any injuries, he came into the tournament with very little match preparation, and it showed. He only played one tournament since the Tennis Masters Series in Miami and that was last week in St. Poelten where he went down in the first round to another qualifier, Nenad Zimonjic, ranked 339th in the world.

If he had advanced, Agassi seemed to have a comfortable road to the third round, where his first real challenge would have been fellow American Vince Spadea. Now there is no one left in Agassi's section who appears ready to win a major with the exception of Alex Corretja, who is not the player he used to be.

Also in the second half of the draw is the second seed, Andy Roddick, who has the ability to one day be a very good clay-court player, but he is nowhere near the player on dirt that he is on hard court. Brad Gilbert has done such a good job tactically with Roddick, it will be fun to see how that coaching translates into Roddick's game on clay. Still, Roddick has a good draw that will certainly see him through to the third round, which would equal his results back in 2001.

For a country the size of Argentina, they have a great number of players -- eight -- in the draw and two of the best in the world in Coria and David Nalbandian. As small as Coria is, it's amazing how he gives players fits on clay courts. He has a great combination of speed around the court, power off of his groundstrokes and exceptional hand-eye coordination. That's why he's won 31 of his past 32 matches on clay. Coria might become the smallest guy to win the French Open since Chang did in 1989.

Coria's biggest challenger in his quarter of the draw will be Carlos Moya. Along with Coria and Federer, Moya is one of the top three favorites for this title. With three titles this season, Moya has been in five finals on five different continents, including, a huge victory at the Tennis Masters Series Rome. One thing Moya has -- which Coria and Federer don't -- is a French Open title. It's only because of past injuries that we have not seen Moya win more majors.

In any Grand Slam tournament there's always a handful of potential spoilers. They're the type of player no one wants to meet early on. Nalbandian is one. He legit has a shot at winning this title.

Although Lleyton Hewitt has never been past the quarterfinals, he's played a lot of tournaments this clay-court season, and you can sense that he's committed to getting back to where he was.

Two other players no one wants to meet are Tommy Robredo, who could be a sleeper in this draw because no one is talking of him as a potential winner, and also Albert Costa, who won the title two years ago. Costa had a valiant tournament last year and just ran out of gas before the end.

Regardless of who eventually wins this title, it should be the most fun two weeks of the year because clay-court tennis is such a thinking man's game. The unpredictable nature of clay-court tennis provides so much drama.

MaliVai Washington, a tennis analyst for ESPN, reached the 1996 Wimbledon final.